Biotech firm moving away

Ventria had been targeted in state by opponents of genetically modified crops.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004

Sacramento biotech company Ventria Bioscience is moving its headquarters and controversial field trials of genetically engineered plants to Missouri.

Officials at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville said the move could help turn the school into a center for plant-made pharmaceutical production.

Ventria has been looking to move for months, partly because of the hostile reception and regulatory hurdles it faced earlier this year in California when it tried to expand field trials of rice that contains common human proteins.

"We looked at several companies and decided that Ventria was a perfect fit to be our anchor company," university President Dean Hubbard said in a statement.

Ventria, started by a biologist from University of California, Davis, in 1993, has 12 employees.

CEO Scott Deeter said Friday that the company is preparing to ramp up production of plant-made pharmaceuticals next spring in Missouri, although moving the office and laboratory could take more than a year. The main plants used by the company are rice and barley.

Deeter said he doesn't anticipate planting more crops in California, where Ven tria's plans for pharmaceutical rice became a flashpoint in a statewide debate about genetically engineered crops. "We really needed to get to a location where we can commercialize," Deeter said.

Anti-biotech activists are expected to welcome the move, and they have promised to track Ventria's activity wherever the company lands.

Biotech opponents say the risk of contaminating the food supply with plant-made drug compounds is too great to allow open-field production. California has a $500 million rice industry.

Ventria officials maintain that their products are adequately regulated and offer enormous potential health benefits.

Originally named Applied Phytologics, Ventria hatched from the idea that plants could serve as biological factories that cheaply produce proteins with medicinal and nutritional benefits.

The company planted its first engineered rice outdoors in 1997. After exploring several possibilities, including baby formula made with plant-engineered ingredients, it settled on two products for its market debut: lysozyme and lactoferrin. Both are proteins found in mother's milk and are thought to reduce infections in nursing infants.

The company already is selling the compounds for use in pharmaceutical production. It eventually aims to sell plant-derived compounds for use in oral rehydration products to treat severe diarrhea.

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